Maintaining Focus With a Patterned Foreground
by Claudia Seymour
When designing a still life, you need to think in terms of directing the viewer’s eye to the still life elements. Working with contrasting values and color temperatures and using complementary colors can help accomplish this goal. All those contrasts can be introduced with a patterned cloth, but the pattern itself can become distracting. The following demonstration shows how I struggled with—and overcame—this problem.
1. Setup: In this setup for the still life in this demonstration, the old coffeepot (with its bent finial) belongs to a dear friend who had asked me to paint it for her, and the oranges have similarly warm colors. To accentuate these warm elements, I placed them against a cool blue-gray background.
2. Drawing: I typically begin an oil painting with a reasonably accurate drawing brushed on with a mixture of ultramarine blue and yellow ochre. By varying the blue and ochre, I can change the values of the lines. Occasionally I’ll use a dark value of the mixture for an early rough-in of the shadows. Because this mixture isn’t as dark as black or plain blue, it often blends unobtrusively into the background. Problems with the drawing are easy to fix at this stage. Here I’d also begun the color block-in of the fruit and pot.
3. Local Color Block-In: The block-in of local color is nearly complete. I was pleased with the arrangement of objects, but I’d already begun to have doubts about the rug draped over the table. The pattern looked busy to me, even though I’d changed the rug’s colors to give additional emphasis to the warm orange and copper of the setup.
4a and 4b. Color Development: In the detail (4a), the two top oranges are painted in full and the oranges on the bottom are partially blocked in. At this point I’d begun to make the colors more intense and realistic. In 4b you see some of the oranges I’d mixed for the fruit. I often mix basic hues and shades that can then be varied with additional colors fruit by fruit.
5a and 5b. Value and Color Development: In 5a you see a detail of the coffee pot, which had become more dimensional as I’d continued to work with the values. You can see the mixtures I used in the middle of 5b. You can also see, in this photo of my palette, the initial colors as I typically lay them out. Starting in the upper left corner and moving clockwise are ivory black, asphaltum, burnt sienna, dioxazine purple, Old Holland blue, sap green. golden ochre deep, shell, cadmium yellow light, cadmium orange, cadmium red light, ruby violet, Old Holland yellow light, and mixed white no. 2 (zinc & titanium). (See Oil Materials for details about Seymour’s basic palette.)
6. Pause for Assessment: The painting had come close to completion, and I was very happy with the cool but neutral blue-gray background, as it strongly accentuated the warm fruit and pot. I was worried, however, about the blocked-in rug. I could see that my early concerns had proved true. The pattern was too busy and regular, and it competed with the arrangement on the tabletop.
7. Paint-Over: I decided to paint out the rug and change it to a patterned napkin. This would allow me to use some additional blue and green to contrast with and emphasize the warm objects of the setup while creating a less distracting design, as seen in the next step.
8. New Design: Thus the abstract design of the new cloth doesn’t capture and hold the viewer’s eye as strongly as the original, more regular or rhythmic pattern of the rug did. The new pattern is also much less busy—and there’s less of it. The plate of fruit and the glass reamer with orange juice have also been completed.
9. Reassessment: Upon completing Coffeehouse Morning (oil, 16×12), I was happy with the way I’d brought a little of the cloth, in very deep values, over the back of the table. Now the lower third of the painting looks complete but no longer fights for emphasis with the fruit, juice, and coffeepot.
Surfaces: P.E.R. Belle Arti Raphael Premium Archival oil-primed linen panel or oil-primed stretched canvas
Palette: Ivory black (Old Holland [OH]), asphaltum (Gamblin [G]; similar to burnt umber), ultramarine blue (Vasari [V] or OH) or Old Delft blue (OH), sap green (OH; for roughing in colors; otherwise Seymour mixes her greens), golden ochre (OH), light shell (Charvin; similar to Naples yellow light), cadmium yellow lemon (OH), cadmium yellow light (OH), cadmium yellow medium (V), cadmium orange (V), cadmium red medium (OH or V), alizarin crimson (OH), ruby violet (V), Old Holland yellow light (OH), mixed white no. 2 (zinc & titanium) (OH)
Seymour prefers Old Holland yellow light or Naples yellow light for lightening colors because each keeps the temperature from becoming icy cold, as it would with zinc or titanium white. For darkening colors, she prefers asphaltum, also because of its warmth, but adds it slowly to keep the resulting color from reading as brown.
Medium: Winsor & Newton Liquin, used sparingly
Brushes: Daler-Rowney Robert Simmons Signet bristle filberts and flats, mostly Nos. 1–5, plus a few large sizes for backgrounds; Rosemary and Co. red sable rounds, Nos. 0–3; Creative Mark Performen kolinsky sable rounds for details
Varnish: Liquitex Soluvar varnish in a mixture of three parts gloss to two parts matte, which cuts the high gloss reflection without creating a “dead,” all-matte finish, applied after the painting has had time to fully dry.
Claudia Seymour is a master signature member of the Pastel Society of America, recipient of Master Circle status by the International Association of Pastel Societies, an associate member of the Oil Painters of America, and a juried member of the Allied Artists of America, American Artists Professional League, American Women Artists, and Audubon Artists. She’s also active on the boards of several art organizations, including the Artists’ Fellowship. Seymour’s classic still lifes have been shown in over 150 juried national and international exhibitions, and she has won numerous prizes, including first-place and best-in-show awards. Her work is represented by Handwright Gallery in New Canaan, Connecticut; J.M. Stringer Gallery in Bernardsville, New Jersey, and Vero Beach, Florida; and W.H. Patterson in London, England. Her DVD Painting Flowers in Oil with Claudia Seymour is available at www.northlightshop.com. Visit her website at www.claudiaseymour.com.
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